How Will the New Documentary Rules Affect Women Filmmakers?

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by Melissa Silverstein
January 11, 2012 12:21 PM
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When I read the NY Times story earlier this week about the proposed changes for films to qualify for a documentary Academy Award nomination, I wondered how these new rules would affect films by and about women.

So, I went directly to the filmmakers, and asked them their thoughts.  Here are a variety of female documentarians who have made a wide diversity of films giving their opinions on the new rules. 

As someone who spends months working on distributing my documentaries every time they are theatrically released I think the change addresses only how "really" theatrically films released should be nominated.  On the other hand the cost of a theatrical release, especially a "for hire deal", is mind blogging.  So this rule change does hurt those filmmakers unable to get a release or raise the funds to hire a company to release.  At least it will help those two newspapers keep alive. 

Aviva Kempner, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

I saw the the new rules and found them a bit disheartening. Like many people I understand that the doc branch has been in desperate need of an overhaul for sometime, but this does seem to be going in a less and not more democratic direction. In regards to how this might affect women directors, I think films focused on and dealing with women's issues are already somewhat marginalized, in terms of their overall commercial and distribution prospects. We had our film qualify this year via Docuweeks and I think having the IDA/Docuweeks in there to help push forward so many less commercial but still worthy films, was such an important and equalizing element - this seems to overlook that.

Maggie Betts, The Carrier

The rules for the documentary Oscar have always been difficult to comprehend and have often been open to manipulation by people who know to do it.  My opinion has always been that the Oscars are for films that show in theaters and that the Emmy awards are for television programs.  If there are not sufficient Emmy awards to recognize some of the amazing feature documentary programming, then this should be brought up with the Emmy awards.  The new rules for the Oscars seem to be an attempt to make the voting for the documentary Oscar a fairer process for the films that have had a legitimate theatrical release.  There are many excellent film festivals around the country that show documentaries and the audiences and the distributors take notice of the films that are both compelling and entertaining stories.  Of course some worthy films may not be recognized but I think that changes in the rules are a step in the right direction.  I don't believe that films by women documentary directors will suffer because of these changes. 

Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker/Hegedus Films

NYT and LAT reviews give small films a great deal of much-needed legitimacy and exposure. Both my documentaries and my narrative feature got New York Times reviews because I did everything in my power to get them. In my mind, those positive reviews meant the films were a critical success regardless of how much (or how little) money the films ultimately made. To me, the question of whether or not the Academy Awards requires the reviews as part of their submission process is not so relevant because filmmakers need to do everything possible to get those reviews regardless.

Emily Abt, Pureland Pictures

The decision to open the voting to all academy members could go two ways.

CON
It will further contribute to unfairness in the competitive process by increasing the number of votes cast by people who don’t screen all the nominated films.  Sad but true, faced with hours of screening, not all voters watch everything. A fair number of docs get through by wrapping themselves in the right marketing or political mantle
 
Years ago, I watched an academy voter fill out ballots based on whether he thought the lead actor was cute – or if he liked the poster -  not by actually watching the films. Since then, when ever I’ve had the chance, I’ve asked academy voters both for their experience, and their general impression. My informal poll, showed that documentary screeners were likely to watch everything they voted on. Feature voters, not so much.

PRO
More recently and I haven’t tracked this – but with the “mainstreaming” of documentaries – that is – with their increased popularity, the larger pool could work in favor of fairness. That is, the law of averages could mean that with more voters, there are more viewers who will actually watch, thereby increasing the chances that the nominated films are given a fair shake.

Marion Lipschutz, Incite Pictures

Where to begin?

First, I guess filmmakers outside of New York and LA now know an Oscar nod is off the table entirely?  

Second, how dare they discredit the motives of DocuWeeks by eliminating their efforts completely.

And lastly, as I'm always saying, it's the need for marketing dollars as well as covering our production budgets that challenges us in the independent film community.  Sure, social media, is catapulting us to significant exposure beyond what we could've achieved even two years ago.  But now that the coveted column inches of two of the top newspapers makes or breaks a "best documentary," just think about all of the behind-the-scenes mayhem that will soon devour our good-natured sense of community and turn us into publicity-hogging junkies.  Social justice activism is tossed into the sewer with this move.

Nicole Franklin, Little Brother

I would imagine that any marginalized group would suffer under the demand for more mainstream recognition. For myself, although I wouldn't turn down an Oscar nomination, I'm not sure a theatrical run is always the best choice. The glory may not be as great, but a good network or cable TV broadcast will give you a much larger audience for your message.

Therese Shechter, How to Lose Your Virginity

In general, I don’t think that the new Oscar qualifying rules will make a difference either way to female documentary filmmakers. Numerous women filmmakers have been nominated and have won documentary feature Oscars. I don’t see that changing. Now that all Academy members will get to vote on the five nominees (not just the documentary branch), that may actually grace attention on more dynamic and genre-bending documentaries (maybe Exit Through the Gift Shop would have won last year if the new rules were in place).

What the changes WILL do, however, is make it that much harder for women filmmakers who aren’t "established" to break through with AMPAS.  Those filmmakers—male or female—who have deep-pocketed distributors or who are themselves “trust fund babies” that can four-wall theaters in New York and Los Angeles, plus hire savvy publicists to get their films reviewed in the Los Angeles Times or New York Times will continue to have a leg up. Female filmmakers without these resources will be locked out of the process, hurting women filmmakers of color in particular.

Also, the new N.Y./L.A. Times theatrical review requirement strikes me as a bit odd and elitist. Say a filmmaker takes the plunge and releases her documentary theatrically on the coasts. She gets numerous rave reviews from film festivals and other screenings. But what happens to her Oscar chances if A.O. Scott hates her film? What if Kenneth Turan gives it a lukewarm review? Film reviews are by design, subjective. So her film could be loved throughout the country, but one negative review by one person at either very influential paper could turn a potential documentary triumph into the Titanic. That doesn’t seem fair to me.

Faith Pennick, Director/Producer, "Silent Choices" and NEW film "Weightless"

I am really concerned about the new rules. I think they further ghettoize micro-budget films on controversial topics, especially ones by women and people of color without the ties to celebrities and people/corporations of wealth. We know that women earn at least 43% less than men and represent less than 16% of directors in films. Yes, we dominate documentaries but often with films we fund ourselves with friends and families on subjects that big doc makers (read: Burns, etc) are not interested in. I don't put much weight in the Oscars but a few of the films that made it in during the past 10+ years did not have big theatrical releases nor NY Times or LA Times articles and with these rules they would never have gotten that far let alone win.  If the issue is advertising as well that makes it even much more difficult. I know they are including Time Out and the LA Weekly so that might be better, but I am still concerned!

When the BIG media outlets are the only way docs get made (or must be promoted in) we further de-democratize our media. Docs are one of the few places independent media makers, journalists, and story-tellers can get their stories out. The Oscars often provide a place where a larger public audience has access to these films thus allowing for social change to take root!

As a member of New Day Films, the first and only feminist, member-owned social issue, educational film distribution company in the country, I can tell you we have a number of incredible films made by women about issues important to women that deserved a chance at these top level awards.  And these rulings will further push our stories out.

Dawn Valadez - Going on 13

What are your thoughts on these changes?

Oscar Rule Will Cull Nonfiction Contenders (NY Times)

IDA and Quad Cinema, Two Four-Walling Oscar Qualifiers, Respond to Oscar Doc Rule Change (Indiewire)

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